BY ALVARO CÉSPEDES
Evan Smith is a firm believer in the power of technology to increase people’s engagement in democracy.
As the CEO of The Texas Tribune, one of America’s most groundbreaking news organizations, Smith leads a team of award-winning journalists dedicated to informing and engaging with Texans “about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues,” according to their mission statement.
Technology plays a major role in the everyday workings of the Tribune. “I have believed for some time that there’s ‘tech’ in The Texas Tribune, so from the very beginning, we’ve said that we are as much a tech company as we are a media company,” Smith says.
And as he sees it, embracing technology is key to a news organization’s longevity.
“Any media company that is not also a technology company is missing out and is probably not gonna be around very long,” Smith said in a 2015 video interview with Rightside, a domain name registry company.
Over the course of its nearly eight-year history, The Texas Tribune has leveraged the power of technology — from producing in-depth and interactive multimedia projects to coding comprehensive data applications — to tell stories that matter most to Texans. By combining technological know-how with a public service mission, it seems that the Tribune has found a formula for success.
Smith co-founded The Texas Tribune in November 2009 with Austin-based venture capitalist John Thornton and veteran journalist Ross Ramsey, then co-owner and editor of Texas Weekly (now called The Blast).
Smith decided to leave his longtime position as editor of Texas Monthly to launch the Tribune after a sort of “a-ha” moment: He realized that the magazine’s objectives did not align with his own vision to explore the opportunities of digital news and technology-aided journalism, he told Rightside.
His new role at the Tribune also came with a strong sense of civic duty, Smith says. He believes that the Tribune’s mission is, above all, to contribute to the development of Texas.
“We have a public service mission,” he says. “We are in business to advance the public interest.”
The Tribune has received national and international acclaim for their coverage of a wide range of topics, including health, energy, criminal justice, race, immigration, transportation and education, among others. The organization has been awarded numerous honors, including nine national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association and three general excellence awards from the Online News Association.
The Tribune’s latest report shows that it has amassed 36 million users, achieved 225 million page views and organized 290 events since it started in 2009, while also managing to keep revenues higher than their expenses.
One of The Texas Tribune’s most recent uses of technological innovation is Paige, a Facebook Messenger app that helps users stay up to date on developments during Texas’ current legislative session. Paige updates users on key legislative issues every Monday and Friday, with additional alerts for breaking news or live hearings. The aim is “to make Texas politics easier to follow.”
Smith says that Paige is one component of The Texas Tribune’s steady growth and success.
“[Paige] is about our continuing desire to reach as many people as possible, and this means getting out of our comfort zones and trying new things, using new technologies and new functionalities,” he says.
Like most products at the Tribune, Paige is a free service. Smith believes it’s important to keep information free to users. “Keeping the content free is consistent with the public service mission,” he says. “This is not achieved behind a paywall.”
The Tribune’s nonprofit status also contributes to that public service mission. “The reality is that a public service mission is consistent with raising money from individuals and foundations and corporations, just as if you were any other kind of organization that exists in public interest and with the purpose of benefiting the public,” Smith says.
The Texas Tribune started with just a handful of employees, but today its staff includes nearly 50 reporters, editors, data managers, technologists and business leaders. As the team continues to churn out top-quality journalism, it also seems to be maintaining a profitable enterprise: Last year, the Tribune generated $6.5 million in revenue.
And Smith keeps in mind that, as a nonprofit, their main source of income is coming from engaged and satisfied consumers willing to contribute their money to the cause.
“We still have to go forward and get people to give us the money,” he says.
This year, the organization’s goal is to raise $7.8 to $7.9 million, and it in just the first three months of 2017, it already reached $4 million.
“But it’s never easy,” Smith says. “The first pitfall is to get over-confident. It is hard to raise money. Period.”